Pay attention, class. Jennifer Aniston makes two kinds of movies. When she has her hair tied back, it’s usually an independent film (like last summer’s “Management”) and usually worth watching. But when her hair is loose it’s usually a big, glossy, studio film like this one. She tends to hide behind her hair in these films, flipping it around or holding her head to keep it still instead of acting. And it hasn’t been working out that well for her. Other than the ensemble film “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and the movie about the dog, “Marley & Me,” she has not been very successful at the box office lately. And this charmless, predictable, and downright dull unromantic romance is another big dud. I’d call it manipulative, too, except that it never came close to manipulating any emotions in me. It’s a romance without an ounce of chemistry between its leads or between its story and its audience.
Aaron Eckhart plays Burke, a successful self-help author and motivational speaker about to sign a huge multi-media deal. He specializes in helping people deal with tragic losses, inspired by his own struggle to deal with his wife’s death in a car crash three years earlier. But like two other self-help authors in movies within the last couple of months (Kevin Spacey in “Shrink” and in Jeff Daniels in “Answer Man”), he is better at giving advice than taking it. Burke has been using his work, the book and seminars, to insulate him from his pain instead of dealing with it.
At a Hilton in Seattle, he (literally) bumps into a florist named Eloise (Aniston). For the first time since his wife’s death, he feels something. She has just broken up with an unfaithful boyfriend and has no interest in feeling anything. He likes her because (I’m not kidding about this) she writes obscure words on the wall of the hotel behind paintings. She tries to dissuade him from his interest by (and I’m really not kidding about this) pretending to be deaf. Defacing property, exploiting a non-existent disability, and making money from the pain of ordinary people. They are meant for each other!
Even Aniston cannot make the antics forced on her by this screenplay look adorable — including a parrot-stealing adventure that is, like everything else in the film, poorly paced and over-long. Eckart’s best moment is early in the film when a photographer asks him a question and a range of emotions flicker across his face, giving us a glimpse of how much more he has to offer than this film allows. The delectable Judy Geer, go-to best friend in studio romance films, featuring actresses named Jennifer or who look like they should be named Jennifer is as usual criminally underused. And I don’t even want to tell you how mistreated poor Martin Sheen is. Worst of all is the screenplay. There is a lot to be said about the way that self-help gurus are this generation’s Elmer Gantrys, but this movie’s decision to try to have it all ways leaves the story without any point of view, forcing the characters to behave in completely inconsistent ways just for a preposterous “feel-good” resolution.
At one point in this film, a minor character in great pain from a devastating loss begins his recovery with a trip to a hardware store. We expect that this will lead to some building project with a positive impact that will help him and the other people in the group work on something constructive and generous. But it turns out to be just a shopping trip, a lot of money and a lot of building materials for nothing. The same can be said of the movie.
Parents should know that this film has brief strong language, brief crude sexual references, many references to sad losses and tragic deaths, and non-explicit fatal car crash.
Family discussion: What makes motivational speakers successful? What was the most important lesson Blake taught his audience?
If you like this, try: Neil Simon’s comedy based on his own experience of dating after his wife’s death, “Chapter Two,” and also “Notting Hill” and “When Harry Met Sally”